Rain, despair, and...Mathilukal
Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s film, like its unseen female character, is a perfect companion in times of great distress
It's not easy to watch a film or read a book or write a column when you hear news of raging floods followed by whirring helicopters overhead, police and ambulance sirens piercing through the neighbourhood, and upsetting news from friends and family.
But last evening, for some inexplicable reason, I reached out to Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Mathilukal. Perhaps, subconsciously, I was reminded of a time when the film brought me so much comfort in an earlier time when I was going through a particularly dark phase.
Upon the second viewing, I realised that the film carries emotions and themes which could be connected to my present state of mind. Mammootty's Basheer, an inquisitive political prisoner armed with sardonic wit, is like that friend you turn to in times of great distress.
Based on Vaikom Muhammad Basheer's novelette of the same name, Mathilukal has been placed by many under the romance genre. This is surprising, considering the film's only female character Narayani (voiced by KPAC Lalitha), who remains unseen in the entire film, enters only in the film's final 30 minutes. For me, more than the love story, Mathilukal is about the comfort derived from the company of a companion, not necessarily a female one, when experiencing unbearable loneliness.
Basheer strikes a friendship with the warden (Thilakan), an encouraging jailor (Srinath), and nearly every prison inmate. He is afforded privileges the other prisoners don't have. Among the sea of faces at the prison is Basheer's childhood friend (Murali), a familiar face he is much relieved to see. But the interactions between them is limited. Basheer, who is treated as a celebrity by the inmates, manages to win everyone over with his unique charisma. They all wish to know if he is going to remember them once he is released.
Basheer seems like someone capable of facing every situation, good or bad, with a smile. One night, he is asked by the warden to make a cup of tea. It's for a prisoner who is about to be hanged. Adoor keeps the camera on Basheer, thereby putting us close to him. Basheer takes his own time making the tea and Adoor lets the viewer soak in this moment. Basheer wants the warden to tell the prisoner to face death with a smile. And then he stays up all night. He tells a constable next morning that he was "giving company to death."
One day, Basheer is informed that he will be released soon as all political prisoners are pardoned. But when he is told later that his name is missing from the list, we begin to notice in him signs of uneasiness and worry. Didn't he tell the warden something about handling everything with a smile? Now the only living things giving him company are the plants in the garden and a squirrel on the nearby tree.
Isn't this situation so relatable? That 'stuck in a single place' feeling, and the accompanying depression which many experienced when the floods hit. Mathilukal emphasises the fact that everyone, no matter how mentally prepared and strong they appear to be, needs someone to talk to in order to survive. And since we are living in a time where Facebook and WhatsApp exist, can any of us survive without communication? Mathilukal made communicating with unseen people cool way before these social media platforms came into existence.
Like the digital barrier, a massive wall separates Basheer and Narayani. When Narayani initiates a conversation with Basheer, he is overwhelmed with joy. Their romance doesn't take that long to blossom. Their exchanges are raw, unhinged and unfiltered. The film, like Basheer, doesn't feel awkward about throwing around words such as breasts and navel. To him, she embodies the freedom which cannot be found in the outside world.
Mathilukal is one of those rare films that gives you the feeling of reading a great piece of literature. The dialogues closely follow the text of the novelette, and Mammootty delivers them with all their purity, sharpness and poetry intact. Through a remarkably nuanced and poignant performance, the actor conveys to us every single emotion passing through Basheer's soul.